One of the most effective keys to accessing the thought patterns we have hidden away is to become familiar with distorted thought processes, and realize that you have the same patterns as other people. Many times we wonder why we don’t feel as happy or understand things the same way as other people, and unless we move forward to find out why this is, we could get to feeling detached from others and, well: “stuck.” It’s thought that the more rationally we can think, and look at those unexamined beliefs and things we tell ourselves, the more positive an emotional life we have, and we have more positive behavioral experiences, too.
Changes in the way we think is a concept called “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” or CBT for short. It assumes that our thought processes might be distorted from many factors, and result in thought patterns that can influence how we see the world around us, and how we view our own selves, too. Distorted thoughts are common, and often these irrational thoughts can result in unhappy or distorted emotional states and reactions like conflicts in our relationships, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and even depression.
The more we are aware of these thought patterns, the more we are equipped to identify them, disrupt and change unhealthy patterns, and shift our thinking in a more positive direction that can elevate our enjoyment of life and others.
Medical doctor and psychiatrist David Burns wrote a book called “The Feeling Good Handbook,” in 1989. He made a list of the 10 most common “cognitive distortions” available to us so we can self-assess, recognize, and (if we desire) change our thoughts and the way we perceive things. As a registered nurse practitioner of cognitive support therapy, I fully support self-help, but I also support seeking out health care providers (therapists, nurses, physicians, health-care licensed life coaches) who can support you when you feel like you would benefit from talking through things with another person. Sometimes guidance through these times can help a lot.
To use the list extracted from Dr. Burns’ work here, realize you are in the club of being a human, and all of us have some variance in the ways we think and the thoughts we hold – in short, you are not alone! Read through the list and descriptions, and you’ll be able to identify one or some that you find apply to you. These are only patterns of thought, and when we’re aware of patterns that don’t suit us, we can make decisions to change if we like. Here is the table:
|1||All or nothing thinking||We see things in black or white categories. If a situation falls short of perfection, we might see a total failure. An example: A man is on a diet and has a spoon of ice cream, and tells himself: “Well, I’ve blown my diet for today,” and then gets so upset that he eats the rest of the ice cream.|
|2||Overgeneralizing||Viewing a single negative event as a never-ending pattern. “That car repair was three times what they said it would be! All car mechanics are dishonest and they always will be. I hate car mechanics.”|
|3||Mental filtering||Picking out a negative detail and dwelling upon it. Often called “awfulizing,” or “catastrophizing,” it can build up to an unlikely conclusion. Here’s an example: “I got a bad grade on my test. I’ll probably have to drop out of college for this. I’ll never have a decent job and will be a loser that can never make it on my own.”|
|4||Ignoring the positive||Rejecting positive experiences, as if they don’t count. “It was nothing,” or even being unable to receive praise: “Oh, you’re just saying that because you have to.”|
|5||Jumping to conclusions||Reading the minds of others, or predicting negative outcomes without evidence. “He went off to bed without saying anything. He’s angry with me for working late again.”|
|6||Magnification||Exaggerating the importance of mistakes or inappropriately minimizing the significance of one’s own assets. “My performance tonight was horrible – I’ll never get the lead part.”|
|7||Emotional reasoning||Assuming that one’s emotions reflect the way things are. “I feel worthless – I must be worthless.”|
|8||“Should” statements||Ineffectively attempting to motivate one’s self with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” “Good employees should ways come to the office early, and be willing to stay late without question.”|
|9||Labeling||Name calling; labeling oneself “a loser” if a mistake is made, for example. Making a leap from one instance to an entire category – like “She’s blonde, what do you expect? They’re airheads.”|
|10||Personalization||Blaming one’s self as the negative cause of a negative event – as in seeing events that happen only in relationship to one’s self: “My kid failed that test. It’s probably all my fault because I have to work.”|
It’s important to understand that the distortions in thought (cognition) listed on the table are not all-inclusive. As important as the awareness of these thought patterns, is the understanding that each person is entitled to their own thoughts and feelings. We are not looking at what is “right,” or “wrong,” in examining cognitive distortions. Instead, we are assessing whether these processes and patterns are effective or ineffective in our lives.
As we become more aware of the qualities of thoughts and how they affect our development and life experiences, more will be known. However, once you have become familiar with the patterns on this list, you can use this knowledge to change your thinking.
In order to give you a framework to begin looking at thoughts and beliefs in a systematic way, we can use the chart above.
Challenging Cognitive Distortions
“Cognitive Distortion” is a term from cognitive behavioral therapy that refers to biased ways of thinking about one’s self and others. Most people experience these to varying degrees. Unfortunately, we can also experience problems in behavioral or emotional states. When we can identify and challenge these “automatic thoughts,” we can experience increased psychological health and well-being, and even more rational behavior. To use this journaling tool, be sure to refer to Table 1 for a list of ten common thought distortion patterns.
(write out the repetitive thought, or belief that you find)
(list any emotions you feel when you think these thoughts)
|Cognitive Distortion Patterns
(Write down the pattern you identify from the list, or closest to it. Sometimes there might be more than one)
|Alternative Rational Response
(write your thoughts on a more rational response to your distorted thought process)
Reference: Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company
© Lizzie Bennett RN
Lizzie Bennett is a Registered Nurse and Ordained Minister of some years and owns Three Moons Medicine™ as her private counseling and coaching practice, a blog, educational forum, Facebook page, and outreach to support others on their journey.
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